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Experts divided on call from MPs to criminalise forced marriages

23 May 2011

Leading solicitors in the field of forced marriages are divided on a call by the Commons home affairs select committee to make forcing people to marry against their will a criminal offence.

Cris McCurley, head of the family department at Ben Hoare Bell in Newcastle, gave evidence to the committee. She supports its argument that forced marriages should be criminalised.

“Victims should have the choice whether to report to the police or go to the courts for a civil order,” McCurley said. “These young people have had the most basic choices taken away from them and here we are doing it again.

“A huge wrong has been committed against them for which there is no criminal redress.”

McCurley said one of the arguments put forward before the Act was passed was that criminalising forced marriages would make BME communities feel victimised.

“I cannot think this would happen with any other type of crime,” she said.

McCurley said it would have been better if the measures on forced marriages had been brought in as a “hybrid act”, giving victims a choice how to proceed.

She added that if forcing people to marry was made criminal, victims would be able to obtain much-needed financial awards from the criminal injuries compensation fund.

Anne-Marie Hutchinson, partner at Dawson Cornwell, said the Forced Marriages Act should be allowed to bed down before “piling on more law in a knee-jerk reaction”.

Hutchinson, who helped draft the Act, said a criminal statute to tackle the practice of female genital mutilation (female circumcision) had not produced a single prosecution.

“As a practitioner who has dealt with more than 200 forced marriage cases, my concern is that in more than half of them I have been asked: ‘Will my parents get into trouble with the police?’ I have assured people that they will not.

“I am concerned that people will be deterred from coming forward and seeking the civil protection which they need.”

Hutchinson said introducing a criminal element would make things “more public” and widen the scope of those who might bring pressure to bear on a victim to stop a prosecution.

“Other family members such as siblings or cousins who were neutral or supportive of civil procedures might be unsupportive of a criminal prosecution. We would be isolating the victim.”

Under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, courts may make orders to stop marriages happening and those who break them could be arrested for contempt of court.

However, it was not until earlier this year that the first person was jailed for breaching an order, Lydia Erhire from Nigeria (see 15 February 2011). Since the Act was implemented in November 2008, MPs said 293 forced marriage protection orders had been made.

The select committee, chaired by Labour MP Keith Vaz, said the Act should continue to be used but it would send out a “very clear and positive message” if it became a criminal act to force individuals to enter a marriage against their will.

“The lack of a criminal sanction also sends a message, and currently that is a weaker message than we believe is needed. We urge the government to take an early opportunity to legislate on this matter.”

The committee said it was also concerned by the low level of awareness of the Act among frontline professionals. Karma Nirvana, which helps the victims of forced marriages, told the committee that 70 per cent of professionals attending its roadshows had not heard of the Act.

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Marriage & Civil partnership Conveyancing